Panel flips blue after 26 years full of Republicans
8 Democrats are swept into office to overtake majority
AUSTIN — For 26 uninterrupted years, all 14 elected judges on Texas’ 5th District Court of Appeals were Republicans, earning a reputation for being one of the most conservative courts in the state.
But that changed dramatically Tuesday, when voters swept eight Democrats into office, overtaking the majority. Only eight of the seats, which come with a six-year term, were up for election. The other six will be up in 2020.
Dallas attorney Tom Melsheimer, who regularly practices before the 5th District Court, said the remaking of the bench was the part of Texas’ “blue wave” that attracted the least attention but yielded the most eyepopping transformation.
The court hears civil, criminal and family appeals cases in Dallas, Collin, Rockwall, Kaufman, Grayson and Hunt counties. All 14 seats on the bench are at-large, meaning the same voters from all of the counties vote for all of the seats.
So even though Dallas has gone blue in recent years, voters in the more conservativeleaning counties have made it difficult for a Democrat to get elected.
“This time, you had tremendous turnout buoyed largely by the Beto O’rourke campaign,” Melsheimer said. “So it’s both surprising and unsurprising that every Democrat won.”
Substantively, Melsheimer said, a Democrat-controlled court could mean more rulings that are deferential to jury verdicts. For example, if a jury awards personal injury damages, sometimes the award will be overturned by the appellate court.
In criminal cases, it could mean judges more closely scrutinize prosecutorial conduct and evidence when asked to overturn convictions.
Judge Ken Molberg, a Dallas County judge and Democrat who was elected to the 5th District over Republican Jim Pikl, said ideally the public doesn’t see any partisan swing.
“Partisan agendas don’t have any place in the court,” he said.
Molberg acknowledged that there is a perception that the court will be more favorable to individuals rather than businesses. But, he said, judges should make decisions based on the law and not their political leanings.
“I’ve never seen a Democratic breach of contract case versus a Republican breach of contract case or a Democratic car wreck versus a Republican car wreck,” he said. “Sure, judicial philosophies may come into play, but these are all decided on a case-by-case assessment.”
Melsheimer said the Democrats’ sweep speaks more about the people voting than it does about the quality of the candidates. He noted that judicial races are so far down the ballot that people rarely know anything about who is running.
Molberg said judges running for office are often uncomfortable having to run on a partisan platform. But the other options for selecting judges aren’t much better.
“If you run without party affiliation, then you’re pretty much assuring the man or woman with the most money always wins, and that’s not the best way either,” he said. “Then there’s the appointedjudge system, but is that any less partisan? Well, look at [Brett] Kavanaugh being appointed to the Supreme Court.”
In addition to Molberg, the other new Democratic judges on the 5th District Court are:
■ Robert Burns, who beat sitting Republican Douglas Lang for chief justice
■ Robbie Partida-kipness, who beat sitting Republican David Evans
■ Erin Nowell, who beat sitting Republican Craig Stoddart
■ Bill Pedersen, who beat sitting Republican Jason Boatright
■ Amanda Reichek, who beat sitting Republican Molly Francis
■ Cory Carlyle, who beat Republican John Browning for an open seat
■ Leslie Lester Osborne, who beat sitting Republican Elizabeth Lang Mier